Vandana Khanna

The In-Between Girl

The first time a boy tries to hit on me, I’m nineteen and have never dated anyone before. On a warm September night after an Indian Students’ Association meeting, this boy comes at me with the worst pick-up line ever, saying, “When I first saw you, I thought you were white.” He has the dusky brown skin of a South Asian and wants to ask me out because I don’t look like him. I’m young and have never had anyone pick me out of a crowd before, speak to me so plainly. I smile like the polite girl I was taught to be because I don’t know what to say. His sloppy attempt at charm brings up years of confusion and doubt about my not-brown-enough skin, picking at the same old hurts running through my life—that I was a pretender, no matter what the situation—that I was perpetually out of place, not brown enough, Indian enough and never, ever American enough.

 
This was not my first lesson about skin. Growing up, I was the only Indian amongst my friends, the only Hindu at Catholic school. I prayed to one god during the day and another one at home; ate burgers with my friends and chaat with my family. And in almost every situation, I wanted to be the same as my white, American friends: wanted to have skin that freckled in the sun, a name that rolled easily off the tongue. I wanted to belong to a country without thinking about it, just like all the other kids. I willed myself to be like them, “ordinary” and “normal,” shortening my long, often-mispronounced name, shaving my legs, trying not to waver in-between two worlds. But something always broke this illusion, forcing me to see all the ways I didn’t fit in.

 
On summer vacations, my parents sent me back to Delhi where I was not dark enough. The street vendors stared and whispered words I couldn’t understand. They thought me a foreigner because of my short hair, my light skin, because I wore denim shorts that showed my legs rather than a salwar kameez like all the other girls walking through the marketplace. My cousins would tease me about my American accent, my aunts warned me from sitting in the sun lest I become dark like them.

 
So, I had come to this meeting out of a need to find other people like me, outsiders and in-betweeners, others who had spent most of their lives trying to fit into a world that they never completely felt comfortable in: neither the world of well-mowed suburban lawns, of two-syllable names and straight hair nor the one of good Indian girls who could recite the arti in flawless Hindi and knew how to make round chapatis.

 
It would have been simple if I’d told him off, if I’d never spoken to him again, if I’d had the courage to be some other girl. But, I’d never been the object of anyone’s desire before, had never inspired a grand, romantic gesture like being pursued down the street, as he did after the meeting, running to catch up with me to get my number. This good-on-paper kind of guy (cute with a sports car and an engineering degree) was chasing after me. In that movie I played over and over again in my head as a teenager, only white girls got pursued and wooed. The boy running under streetlights was always running after someone else. In this version of the story, I got to be that girl. I wrote my number on his palm in the growing darkness in front of my dorm, agreed to go out with him when he called later that same night. As I rewind the scene in my head, I wonder at the person I’d been back then—so easy to ignore what he was really saying by the desire to be chosen, by the desire to be the kind of girl a boy would want to run after.

 
But once in that role, I was totally unprepared for it. After a month of dating, it didn’t work—I was too uncomfortable with what he’d said, with the fear that he liked me for all the wrong reasons. Turns out, there wasn’t much in common between me and the good-on-paper kind of guy, especially when I felt I had to pretend. Once we started dating I thought, romantically, stupidly, that he’d get to know me and like me for who I really was, beyond the skin, to the whole complicated in-betweenness of me. But I quickly learned that I’d have to be his idea of pretty to keep him liking me, his kind of Indian-girl-who-looked-white, and I didn’t know how to fulfill all of those expectations or if I even wanted to. When I gave myself the chance to decide, I realized that I didn’t want to deny my Indian-ness, didn’t want to be a bright prize pinned to his lapel. My skin had become some complicated symbol or code that I couldn’t decipher. I was tired of feeling out of place, of being someone who didn’t mind being mistaken for something I wasn’t. Turns out, I was tired of a life of pretend “whiteness,” and it only took a boy’s careless remark in my nineteenth year for me to figure that out.

 
Now, when my children hold up their arms to compare their dusky skin to mine, they ask how I am light and they are dark, if I was ever as dark as them. They want the dark brown skin of their father and wonder how we can be so many different shades and still be in the same family. Years of being an outsider, of being too light or too dark, of being “different,” has taught me that it all belongs to me—the in-between girl who finally likes her in-betweenness, who realized that all those experiences, those hurts and revelations, accumulate on my skin, give it its color.

 

 

Vandana Khanna is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, and her poems and essays have appeared in the New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and Guernica, amongst other journals.

 … return to Issue 11.3 Table of Contents.